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Where Did My Breath Go? July 19, 2013

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These past few weeks have given me a few challenges to continuing my mindfulness practice, and I am able to see what these challenges are. As a result, my mindfulness practice isn’t coming as easily to me lately, and I feel that I have lost my breath and my present moment awareness. I am trying to motivate myself skillfully to restore my mindfulness without shame or fear or guilt.

I lost my breath. While it seemed not so long ago my awareness of my breath came so much more easily to me, recently it seems that awareness is largely gone. I’m going through my days these past couple of weeks almost completely in my mind, lost in thought, oblivious to my experience of the present moment within and around me.

I suspect losing my breath may have happened as a result of recently spending five full days out of town visiting relatives. Also, I’m sure my preparations for my upcoming trip are contributing to the tendency to be lost in planning thoughts. Finally, an important factor is that I’m working a new part time job that requires me to be rushing and keeping track of multiple objects of attention at once. I find it difficult to get out of these tendencies even after I’m off work.

I have been paying attention to what it is like to have less awareness of my breath, and I am finding that the state of mind in which I have been lately is not all that enjoyable. I feel that I am just rushing or moving from one task or duty to another. I can’t really sit still or be really comfortable with not doing anything but just being. I feel like I am missing out on life, the life that can be deeply experienced and enjoyed. I feel quite agitated and restless, and like I am mostly up in my head and disconnected from my body.

I can go great lengths of time without remembering to return to my breath. When I am rarely able to return to my breath, my mind is soon off wandering to thoughts and plans. My sitting practice sessions have been difficult when I see my mind wander off so easily and so often. It requires a great deal of effort not only to return to the breath but to stay there.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been making up a story about what this means for myself as a practitioner, including details about what I think has happened in the past and will happen in the future. I’m using my mindfulness practice as a criteria for self-judgement and applying labels of lazy and bad. This story only adds to the difficulty and the challenges posed by my present circumstances.

As an experienced practitioner, I know that motivating myself through shame and far is a very negative and unskillful way to be diligent in my practice. Instead, what I want to do is motivate myself positively and skilfully using confidence, faith, and patience. I want to get out of the story I’ve created in my mind about what a bad practitioner I am. I’m remembering a joke my dharma teacher said at a recent retreat: “I’m a little piece of shit and I’m the centre of the universe.” Its exactly that type of thinking that I would like to avoid.

The fact is, losing my breath or my present moment awareness has happened before. This is not the first time. All it means is that different conditions have arisen that do not support my mindfulness practice. And I’m able to see what some of these conditions are.

Therefore, I have been putting quite a bit of effort lately into restoring my mindfulness, my breath, and my present moment awareness. In my sitting practice especially, I have been trying so hard lately to be really interested in my breath. What’s breathing in? What’s it really like, not just my idea of what its like? What does it feel like? Where exactly do I feel it in my whole body?

I’m also reminded continually of some meditation instructions given to my by a recent dharma teacher on retreat: “Be present for this moment. Not regretting how much you weren’t present in a past moment, or plans for how much you will be present in this moment, but completely present, right here, right now.” When I heard my teacher say this, I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh! She’s reading my mind! How did she know that those are the exact thoughts going through my mind when I am practicing mindfulness!”  Her instructions are a helpful reminder to just be in the present moment without the added stories I contribute.

But I know that I’ll regain my present moment awareness, and I will reconnect with my breath and my body. I know I will because I have absolute faith in the three jewels. I know that when I sit on my cushion and I return to my breath and my body, centered in my safe island of mindfulness, that I am home. I have felt that feeling of groundedness and at-home-ness enough times that it has become internalized.

These past few weeks have offered a few conditions that aren’t supportive of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve noticed my breath and my present moment awareness is not as strong as it has been previously. Nevertheless, I am continuing to practice in order to cultivate and restore my awareness, but I need to remind myself to do it skillfully without shame and fear.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go practice sitting meditation!

Be Still and Heal June 9, 2013

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I have experienced incredible healing from deep suffering in my meditation practice, and the healing process is a challenging one to handle skilfully. First, I have to create an environment of stillness and stability in order for past pain to arise on its own. Then I have to turn toward difficult emotions in compassion. Perhaps the healing happens on its own, its not really me, Andrea, doing it. I just create the conditions for it to happen.

In my last post I described how I experienced a great deal of healing from past suffering using my mindfulness practice. When I wrote that post, the section describing how I experienced the healing process had become quite long, so I decided to write it as a separate post.


At the moment, my meditation “altar” consists of a paper copy of the above calligraphy by Thay taped to my bedroom wall. I truly treasure this calligraphy as an altarpiece because I do believe my meditation practice is the work of healing. Healing is making whole, as the word heal comes from the root word meaning restoring to wholeness. I am restored to wholeness when I can transform past suffering into peace and freedom.

The first part of these instructions is to be still, and stillness needs to happen first before healing can take place. I need to be still in body by sitting and not moving around. I stop interacting with and reacting to stimuli in my environment. I need to be still in mind by considerably slowing down the endless tracks of discursive thought that keeps me going around in circles, accumulating anxiety and tension along the way.

When I am still, my mind-body-heart knows that I am safe. I am free from potential dangers, free from self-judgement, self-criticism, and harshness. I am in a place where I feel supported and protected. In this safe place, I can truly rest, and my guard is let down.

These are the conditions I create in order for the healing to take place on its own time. It isn’t really me doing the healing, but I let it happen on its own accord. When my guard is let down, suffering that has been accumulating will suddenly resurface, out of nowhere and without warning.

This suffering has been accumulating from past circumstances when I didn’t have enough awareness or resources to take the time to deal with the suffering. Past suffering have could been caused by an experience where I was overwhelmed in despair or confusion.

In a safe place of grounded mindfulness, I can see that a moment of despair is not the whole truth. It was just a moment, and I can take refuge in a place of clarity and stability. I rest in a new moment where despair or confusion is no longer present.

The suffering resurfaces because it needs to have new meaning made out of it. It needs to be expressed in at atmosphere of mindfulness and compassion. Past suffering resurfaces in the form of difficult emotions so that it can express itself and be released.

Emotions of fear, grief, sadness, or despair will arise, sometimes with a past memory attached to it, sometimes not. When these emotions arise, the real work of meditation practice takes place. Usually, when a difficult emotion arises, my first instinct is to run away or close down. “It hurts, its too painful, I want it to stop, it feels wrong.”

On the contrary, the solution lies in turning toward a difficult emotion. I move toward it, open up my awareness in interest and curiosity: “Oh, fear is arising. Fear is present. What’s this like? What’s happening here?”

A very important ingredient, perhaps the most important ingredient, is compassion. I have to make very sure that turning toward difficult emotions is done out of love and compassion, not out of sadistic self-torture or to fix my broken self. It is very challenging to skilfully make this distinction. I have to make sure that I do it because I love myself and I don’t want to be in unnecessary suffering. I care about myself and I take good care of the difficult emotion.

To skilfully handle difficult emotions, I have to stay grounded in the present moment. I try to only handle one moment at a time, to slice up the stream of experience into a razor-thin slice of moment by moment experience. This is what is happening now. I try to steer clear of adding the dimension of time to what happens, which only adds fear and exacerbates the hurt. I try to avoid thinking about how this emotion has happened before or has been with me for so long. I try to avoid thinking about how the emotion will stay with me “forever” or at least a long time into the future.

To me, healing is real, I have experienced it as a reality. Interestingly, images can come to me that perfectly illustrate the healing that I feel is happening internally. I’ve had images come to me of a closed lock being opened by a key, or of jammed gears loosening up and turning. I will state what I have been taught and now accept as true for me: suffering can be transformed into freedom, liberation, happiness, and peace.

My meditation practice has offered me the opportunity heal a great deal of past suffering. But before healing can take place, I need to be still in order to have a sense of stability and security. Stillness is a condition I create in my meditation practice, and once difficult emotions arise, I have to know how to handle them with great compassion and care.

Only One Dish At A Time February 8, 2013

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I have found a few instances where being mindful of the present moment can bring a great deal of relief from the stress of a mind overwhelmed by a huge task to accomplish. The title refers to being mindful of only being able to wash one dish at a time in order to complete the task of washing a whole sinkful of dishes.

Note: This is my 2nd post on the theme of washing dishes. Originally I had intended to include this piece in last week’s post Insights from Washing Dishes, but the post was getting a bit lengthy and I decided to use it as a 2nd post this week.

I often go through spells of doing a big batch of cooking at once to last for a few days, and this baking and cooking from scratch can create quite a pile up of dirty pots and pans. It probably doesn’t help that I am tired from a stint of cooking, but I often feel overwhelmed at the thought of making my way through a sink full of dishes to be washed. It can often require me to muster up a great deal of encouragement to convince myself to actually complete the task, instead of just procrastinating and leaving it for “later.”

This thinking about washing a sinkful of dishes is exactly the problem. I can’t wash a sink full of dishes. When I am really mindful, I know that I only have one hand to hold the dish cloth and one hand to hold a single dish at any given moment. In reality, my body can only wash one dish at a time.

Nevertheless, my mind tries to wash an entire sinkful. It takes in all of the information of the entire job to be done start to finish, projecting far into the future. In a way, the mind is “biting off more than it can chew”. And so the result is feelings of dread and overwhelm.

Mindfulness of the present moment can bring quite a relief to the burden of an overwhelmed and stressed mind when I can see that I only wash one dish at a time. And then one more dish. And one more. And one more…And so on  until finally they are all done! All that I have to do is to take care of this moment.  And this moment. And this moment. Wow, its so much easier! Suddenly I feel light, and a sense of ease; washing dishes really is more enjoyable.

I soon had an opportunity to apply this insight to another aspect of my personal circumstances. I dislike marking student term papers. Personally, I think its an impossible task, but I only think so now after trying very hard to do the impossible and undergoing a great deal of stress. In the midst of all of this, I was able to see that it was much more stressful to try to read through and mark the entire stack of papers from a whole class.

Instead, I could simply take one paper at a time, do the necessary work, and reassure myself that I can reevaluate at the end whether more time was available for further additions. Although the more methodical strategy requires me to trust in my capability to do the job efficiently and satisfactorily.

Nevertheless, I was successful in applying this insight to marking papers when I could concentrate only on the task at hand. I gave my full attention to a single paper at a time, and when I was done I set it down and let it be released from my mind. While I wouldn’t say marking was suddenly enjoyable, it was a great deal easier without constantly fighting with and pushing myself to work faster, or worrying about how long it was going to take to be done.

The insight of only one moment at a time can be applied to so many activities in my everyday circumstances in order to feel a sense of freshness, lightness, and ease. When I’m walking, it’s just this step, just one foot in front of the other. Just one piece of clothing to fold. Just this e-mail to write. To me, this approach embodies Zen when I give my full attention to whatever I am doing at any given moment.

I hope that I can find more and more activities to apply the perspective of only one moment at a time. It does take some mental effort, I will admit, to let go of the other preoccupations that visit my mind, and focus on the task at hand. In my opinion, this mental effort is an investment: it may take an input of some energy at first, but once it becomes more habitual, it pays off in the end when I use less energy and therefore have more energy and attention to give to the other activities and people I love. Thay has described it as an art to know how to live freely in the present moment by casting aside our worries. It is an art to know how to be skilful in where to focus my attention.

Insights From Washing Dishes February 1, 2013

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At the last sangha meeting I facilitated, I read the chapter “Washing Dishes” from the book Peace is Every Step. I had the chance to listen to great perspectives from others on the topic. I also was able to share some of my insights, including a reflection on the non-dual nature of dishes and the miracle of being alive in our day to day circumstances.


The Non-Dual Nature of Dishes

When I returned from a recent retreat, I took the opportunity to look for the dharma in as many different and new aspects of my everyday situations. I spent some effort trying to find some lessons in washing dishes, as I felt Thay put a strong emphasis on these and other daily activities. I really tried to pay close attention to my experience of the present moment with a very curious attitude. After a long period of time, I had a realization that I felt was the meaning behind what Thay was trying to teach.

In the middle of the process of converting a dirty dish into a clean dish, I realized that “dirty” and “clean” are just labels and concepts I apply to some experience of reality, when the ultimate reality is that they are just dishes. Also, my preference for clean dishes is only in reference to their opposite. I only want clean dishes because I don’t want dirty dishes; I want the opposite of dirty, which is clean.

This preference for “good” over “bad” can extend to so much of my experience. I want “happiness” without “suffering” and “pleasure” without “pain,” but the definition of happiness necessarily involves its opposite, the absence of suffering. Happiness and suffering are just two ends of a spectrum when the reality is the whole thing, the bigger picture.

I know that I can’t have happiness without suffering, just like I can’t have clean dishes without dirty ones. They go together. Unfortunately, I was told and believed the societal message that I can have one without the other. I can have happiness without suffering.

Applied to the example of dishes, I can put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and it will clean them for me. Thus I am absolved and avoid the “messy” task of cleaning dirty dishes. But as soon as I do that, I don’t appreciate having clean dishes, and I don’t know how to clean dirty ones! Which is a metaphor for so much of society and many of the problems that we collectively face today.

I don’t appreciate the conditions for my well being that are present in every moment: clean dishes; a meal of fresh healthy food; a strong, vital body; a safe, inviting home; a family that supports and looks out for me. All of these wonderful conditions take time and attention in order to enjoy their nourishment.

As a result of my insight into the interrelatedness of dirty and clean wishes, I was much more happy to wash dishes (at least for a short period of time!). I recognized that without the task of washing dirty dishes, I would have to be deprived of the pleasure of eating a meal. So when I was washing dishes, I was also eating, because washing dishes and eating inter-are. And because the meal I eat inter-is with everything I do with my energy from the food, washing dishes is also doing everything else.

Thus, I found a similarity to Thay’s story about his attendant fetching him to give the dharma talk and found Thay planting seeds. Thay was in no rush to hurry to the meditation hall, because he explained that if he can’t plant the seeds, he wouldn’t be able to give the dharma talk.


Washing Dishes As A Miracle

In the chapter, Thay says that washing dishes is a miracle. Unfortunately, I have usually found that my experience of reality does not fit with this statement from Thay. Nevertheless, now I am able to recognize that Thay is a poet, and much of what he writes is in poetic language for the purposes of sounding lovely.

In contrast, my experience of washing dishes usually couldn’t be farther from what Thay is telling us. To me, it usually feels like I am just washing dishes. No miraculous feeling here. Nothing more. Nothing special. It feels “blah,” boring, mundane, and unsatisfying.

More and more I am trying to see how the discrepancy is due to my idea of what a miracle or satisfaction or happiness should feel like. I am caught in craving for something other than my mundane, everyday circumstances. Or, as one author puts it, in wanting “a bright and shining moment.”

My idea of happiness is that it should be a lights-flashing, bells-ringing moment of “HAPPINESS!” This idea is what has been sold to me by my culture that happiness is excitement, as energetic and stimulating.

I am craving the excitement to overcome the dullness of my everyday circumstances. I have to remember that when this time of craving is indulged, it can never be fully satisfied but only keeps me searching for more, leaving me finally collapsed in exhaustion, my senses frayed and my mood sullied.

On the other hand, Zen teachings explain that happiness is peace, ease and contentment. My experience coincides with this, because the moments when I have felt that life—being alive—truly is a miracle has come from a place of deep stillness, silence, and peace. Moments when my present moment awareness was so strong that it spread out to encompass everything around me.

I will close with a confession that I continue to struggle with my dissatisfaction with the dull mundane feeing of my everyday circumstances. I realize that trying to ‘get away’ from these moments has actually already resulted in missing out on a great deal of my life.

Oh, and I still don’t really like washing dishes…

May I Be Free From Tension: Practicing with Chronic Tension December 28, 2012

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A challenge that has recently arisen in my meditation practice is a great deal of physical tension that is causing quite a bit of pain and suffering. I have had the opportunity to look deeply into its causes and to come up with some strategies to alleviate the tension. Some changes I have had to make to help alleviate the tension and pain include changing my daily formal sitting practice, bringing awareness to the body off of the cushion, and cultivating compassion and equanimity.

For the past three weeks I have noticed chronic tension in my upper shoulders, an area that has given me trouble since I was a teenager. It is the area of my body where I hold any tension. The tension can get built up quite a bit and become quite painful. It seems the tension is there all day long, I even wake up and find that the tension hasn’t gone away completely overnight.

I wanted to look deeply to see the cause of this tension, to determine why it has arisen all of a sudden, when a few weeks ago I never noticed it. I realized that it started when I was given a new work assignment, where I had to complete a very challenging task over a one week period by a certain deadline. The work I did was very rushed, and I find being crunched for time is a situation where I often experience physical tension.

The work assignment was also difficult to complete because I never found that I was satisfied with the work I was doing. I was almost always or always producing less than ideal results. I finished the assignment over two weeks ago, but it has taken me at least that length of time to release all of the tension.

The first strategy I used to try and alleviate the tension was to change my daily formal sitting practice. I decided to use a concentration practice, and the object of my concentration was the specific area of the body that was holding the tension. I tried to pay attention to any sensations that were arising in my shoulders, which was difficult to do because it seemed so silly and informal.

I tried to pay specific attention to whether there was either tension or relaxation in the muscles, as well as pain or comfort/ absence of pain, and to try to focus on the exact specific area of the body. I am finding this practice to be quite challenging, because it is so difficult to maintain the focus of my concentration on such a small part of my body that often doesn’t seem to have any sensations arising to notice.

Another strategy I have tried to use off of the cushion is to try to maintain that awareness of any bodily tension in my shoulders. At times I can do this easily, but most of the time it seems I really can’t bring awareness to my shoulders at all. These practices have shown me just how much I can be numb to my body, or at least numb to specific areas, and how often I am dwelling in the mind and thinking.

It is difficult to try to maintain awareness of the body while trying to do other things at the same time. There are times when I am able to feel tension arising in my shoulders but I am not able to relax the tension. This is quite alarming and challenging to deal with, because it is that familiar situation of “I know that I am doing it but I can’t stop myself.” I know from experience that this can go on for some time before the next stage occurs where I am able to stop doing the unskilful behaviour altogether.

Another strategy is to cultivate compassion for myself. Ah, yes, compassion, that quality that I seem to be needing to develop more and more lately. I like the phrase I just came across from Jack Kornfield’s book, “May I be held in compassion.” I sometimes add, “May this/my sore, tired body be held in compassion.”

I also have had the chance to apply a reminder given to me by a teacher at a recent Day of Lovingkindness event that I am not my own fault. I did not knowingly choose to have this tension arise, but it is instead a result of the causes and conditions that made it happen, including my own habit energy. This reminder really helps alleviate the frustration I experience.

Off of the cushion, I like to use phrases to help relieve the tension, especially when I am walking. The two that seem to work best are, “May I be free from tension,” and “May I be relaxed.” I say them on the out breath and try to focus on releasing the tension as I exhale. One thing I noticed while using these phrases is that tension doesn’t necessarily only refer to physical tension. Instead, I recognize that mental, emotional, and spiritual/ existential tension can also cause a great deal of suffering. So using these phrases can be applied to any type of tension that builds up in the body or mind.

I have noticed that at times, usually the end of a formal sitting practice period, equanimity will arise and bring a lot of relief. I can hold the tension and pain in awareness and recognize that its just pain. Its just tension. There is no self identifying with the pain, it is just what is happening in this moment. It is not my pain. And I can hold it all with a calm, relaxed attitude and even a small gentle smile. The thought can arise that, “Its no big deal.” This is quite a relief from a habitual anxious, frustrated attitude about the whole thing.

Yet again, I am happy to be sharing what is arising in my practice and the ways that I am able to deal with it. This situation has given me challenges, but I am also able to recognize the positive aspects that are coming out of it. I recently listened to a podcast that reminded me that the Buddha taught according to each person’s individual circumstances and capabilities. So for me, right now, this is what I am applying my practice to. I also remember Karen Maezen Miller’s reminder that my life is my practice. Chronic tension is what is arising in my life, and that is what I will practice.

A Weekend of Lovingkindness September 16, 2012

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Less than an hour ago I ended a weekend lovingkindness Vispassana retreat. This was my first metta retreat, although I have been practicing metta on and off for quite some time. Back in March after a particularly difficult time in my own practice, I started practicing both metta and concentration in my daily practice. My metta practice took a break during the stressful transition across the country, but I have been back at it.

The opportunity to take part in a metta retreat couldn’t have come at a better time for me. These past few months, I am becoming more and more aware of being in touch with my heart, or my feeling centre as the teacher described it this weekend, or a deeper, more sensitive part of me that is usually covered up in my day-to-day busy-ness.

More and more often lately, my heart has been feeling quite vulnerable and tender, which is a new experience for me. I think I’ve always been more aware of my thoughts and my mind than my feelings, which probably hasn’t been helped by years of psychology training. So lately it has become a challenge, an open question that invites exploration, of how to take care of this vulnerable heart centre that is becoming more and more awake with more presence, more mindfulness, more awareness of myself.

Listening to my fellow retreat members describe their experience with the teacher’s instructions, it eventually became clear that some people are more in touch with their heart than others. Some people can just drop right in and find out what is happening. I’m not sure that it is quite so clear and easy for me at this point in time. Instead, it seems like it is only after a long period of sitting, or when a particular feeling is being stirred up, that I am able to be aware of my heart.

What I particularly liked about the teacher’s instruction this weekend was that the instruction of dropping into one’s heart, to become aware of it, doesn’t have to have a particular word or feeling name attached to it. Instead, it can be described as simply as open or closed. Am I feeling open, relaxed, receptive, spacious, loving, kind, generous? Or am I feeling closed off, tight, blocking, retreating, small, anxious, fearful?

For me, open or closed is a simple question that is easier to access. In a previous post I described how this comparison had become so useful in an application of sorting through physical junk and possessions. The awareness of open or closed feelings has become more and more accessible to me, and I am learning to put more trust in it.

As someone who seems to lean stronger in the direction of mental awareness, trusting feelings is a new one for me. I’m not used to trusting feelings. I’m used to using my linear, rational brain to sort things out, figure it out, get this analyzed and find the answer. Instead, trusting feelings is much more subtle and harder to tap into.

Another instruction I appreciated from the weekend was emphasizing the pleasure, the pleasant experiences of formal sitting practice. I think I have enough diligence and self-discipline that I can afford to be a little indulgent in my practice. In fact, taking pleasure might be exactly what is missing. Too often I think I am practicing out of a sense of “I should be doing this,” or even, “I have to.” Instead, the teacher said that you can do it because it feels good, its enjoyable, how can you not want to do it?

The other thing the teacher mentioned along this theme was to spend time being aware of the pleasantness of sitting practice in order to be familiar with it. In fact, we should make it our “home”, the place where we want to return to, where we belong, where we feel comfortable and safe. The more we know and recognize what it is like to feel relaxed, calm, spacious, and warm, the more easily we can recognize when we’re not that way—when we’re tense, tight, and worrying.

Finally, I wanted to add a very important note of how wonderful it was to come into the hall on the first night and see so many wonderful friends and dharma buddies that I have known and sat with for so long. Everyone was so friendly and so happy to see me, I felt so welcome and so happy to be back in my “home city.” I felt a lot of belonging, a lot of warmth, and a lot of love from all of my sangha members. I’m sending my metta to you all! You are all in me very deeply, everyone I’ve sat with has touched me in a very profound way.

Review: You Are Here September 3, 2012

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 Review: You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

I recently finished You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment. Much of what I read, I have come across previously in other books by Thay, but this book has been arranged so that the main focus and message of the book is specifically the present moment. The book is very small and very easy to read. It is an instruction manual for how to dwell fully in the present moment, and explains all of the benefits we can receive if we know how to do this.

If I could sum up the main message of the book, it would be this:

“I am here.”

If we are able to say this and know that it is true, then we know we are practicing skilfully. To be able to say, “I am here. I have arrived.” is the main practice offered in this book. It is a simple (perhaps not so easy) practice that can have immense benefits.

“The Buddha said, ‘The past no longer exists and the future is not yet here.’ There is only a single moment in which we can truly be alive, and that is the present moment. Being present in the here and now is our practice.”

The book also describes the miracles of mindfulness in the present moment, both for ourselves and for the other.

The miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can heal from the past. Thay explains how to practice skilfully with our past and not be lost in regret. We can also practice in the present moment to make right any unskilful actions from our past. If we have a painful past, we can practice to heal from it and enjoy freedom and happiness.

Another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can skilfully handle the future. Thay says it best in that:

“The future is being made out of the present, so the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment… Spending a lot of time speculating and worrying about the future is totally useless.”

Finally, another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we are able to handle difficult emotions if we are able to dwell in the present moment. Thay uses the metaphor of a tree blowing in a storm that appears as if it might be uprooted by the strong winds. The base and roots of the tree are firmly rooted in the earth, and not shaken by the storm. For ourselves, we can handle storms of difficult emotions by focusing our concentration on our bodies, in the space below the belly button.

Thay also describes how our dwelling in the present moment can be a miracle for others. In the book, the ability to stay in the present moment and focus all of our attention on another person is love. Our presence and undivided attention is a wonderful thing we can offer to others. There are some wonderful examples and stories of students who have learned this important lesson. I would agree that I feel most loved when I am acknowledged and appreciated by others with their full accepting attention.

Another part of the book I particularly enjoyed was a description of the benefits of practicing with a sangha. Thay suggests that a sangha can help us to handle storms of difficult emotions, and can help us to cultivate our own power of mindfulness, especially if we are just beginning.

Finally, the book ended with the story of a monk comforting a dying person (Teachings to be Given to the Sick), an anecdote I have always enjoyed the few times I have come across it. Here are some quotes from this section:

 “We are in the habit of identifying ourselves with our bodies, ‘This body is me and I am this body.’ But we are not just this body, we are much more than that… We are life, and life is far vaster than this body, this concept, this mind.”

 “We should never forget that dying is as important as living.”

A point that I really appreciated was that we can ask an experienced sangha member how to improve our practice. Thay firmly instructs that our mindfulness practice should be enjoyable, with no struggling. If we are finding this is not the case, we are not practicing correctly, so we can ask someone else how improve our practice. For myself, this was an eye-opener, because I think I started out my mindfulness practice with the idea that if it wasn’t working or bringing benefits, I should stop practicing. Nevertheless, I understand the suggestion that perhaps I just wasn’t practicing skilfully or completely understanding the instructions. So instead of abandoning my practice that doesn’t provide immediate results, I could ask someone else for help (a difficult instruction for me, as I am quite an independent learner with a preference to read more books than ask someone for advice).

I would recommend this book for someone who is beginning the practice, or for someone who would like a short, easy-to-read reminder of the benefits of present moment awareness.

One final quote I enjoyed:

 “Our bodies and minds are sustained by the cosmos. The clouds in the sky nourish us; the light of the sun nourishes us. The cosmos offers us vitality and love in every moment. Despite this fact, some people feel isolated and alienated from the world.”

Lovingkindness Practice March 15, 2012

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After feeling very burdened by a lot of self-judgement and criticism, I’ve decided to practice lovingkindness meditation. I have tried lovingkindness  on occasion many times but never made it a regular practice. I always wanted to because I’ve always noticed how powerful and effective the practice is when I do get around to doing it.

I had thought about incorporating a daily lovingkindness practice in the evening while doing my regular daily morning mindfulness practice, but never made the time or got into the habit. Now I decided to replace mindfulness meditation with lovingkindness meditation for my morning practice.

Another reason to try it is it was covered in an excellent book I recently read entitled Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment.

So far I have noticed that it is harder to stay concentrated during lovingkindness practice than my (what a surprise!) concentration practice. It is hard fo rme to keep my attention on the prhases, the visualization of the person, and the breath (I recite the phrases with each breath).

Nevertheless, I still find it worthwhile and am determined to continue the practice.

I’ve already noticed after a few sessions that some days the practice can be very powerful, where I feel very strong emotions arise during the session. Other days, I feel nothing or almost nothing. I try not to judge and decide whether it has anything to do with my technique or effort, I am just determined to continue and see what happens.

Feb 14: Day of Lovingkindness March 3, 2012

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What a treat today to purposefully do a guided lovingkindness meditation. I don’t often do lovingkindness meditation, as I find it a bit more helpful to be aware of the thoughts that are already occurring in my mind before I try to add more thoughts to the mix.

I decided today would be as good a day as any to practice lovingkindness, so I put on Sharon’s guided lovingkindness meditation. I really enjoyed the guided meditation, and can say I certainly noticed strong feelings of love and warmth arising when I pictured a loved one as the object of my kind wishes.

I will admit, however, that the feelings weren’t nearly as strong when I was directing lovingkindness toward myself, but that is typical for me when I practice lovingkindness. I guess its a sign that I’m the most in need of my own lovingkindness.

I spent the rest of the sit using my own familiar lovingkindness phrases. When I was finished, I didn’t feel quite as calm-minded as I often do after a concentration meditation, but it was still worthwhile. I noticed I felt quite a bit differently as soon as I started interacting with people as I went about my day. I also felt that the lovingkindness was a nice break from the usual self-criticism and self-judgement that was following me around until my sit that morning.

I told my friends that today was my day of lovingkindness proudly, instead of saying happy Valentine’s day. For myself, its important that there is a practice to cultivate love and kind wishes toward all living beings, regardless of whether those living beings are the object of my romantic affections. In a sense, lovingkindness is the boundless, generous love that gives, rather than just transactional love that gives only to receive.

Feb 9: Watching Panicked Thoughts Arise…and Pass Away March 3, 2012

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I had a good sit this morning, I was able to get really concentrated. It was really a neat experience to be able to note each passing moment very minutely, to be aware of every sensation of each breath. I noticed that my awareness was very sharp and precise, and I felt quite alert. Although I should mention that there were a few moments of feeling drowsy and slipping into a half-dozing state.

I have been trying a new sitting position the past few days, so my back was still feeling a little bit sore while I was sitting, but I tried not to dwell on it but instead focus my awareness on something else. I tried to keep in mind that the pain would pass as soon as I got up and started moving again.

The thought in the mind when the bell went off was “aware of the breath in the body.” But I did cheat here because I checked the time at 2 minute before the bell and tried really hard for the last 2 minutes to stay on the breath.

A fascinating experience to watch this time was when I all of a sudden realized that I needed to book an airplane shuttle for my upcoming holiday. As soon as this thought occurred, I fell immediately into panic mode: Oh my gosh! I have to book this right now! I can’t forget this or I will be stranded at the airport, etc.

The panic mode lasted for a few minutes before I noticed what was happening, and smiled to myself. I let my awareness come back to the breath and relax my suddenly tense body. I realized that this was important enough that I could let the thought go without causing a problem. I knew it would come up again later and I would deal with it then. This is very empowering for me, to realize that my worries don’t always have to be dealt with in the present moment, but instead can be let go to come back again later at a more appropriate time.

It was also neat to watch the whole process from start to finish of this panicked state arising and passing away. Because I was experiencing good concentration in this sit, I was able to see in slow motion each step of the process: the thought arising, the mind making a story out of it, the body tensing up at the anxious thoughts, the awareness coming home to the present moment, and the mind and body becoming calm again.